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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Salute Your Shorts
So this is happening.

Essentially, Orbit is offering its authors' short fiction, any and all original short fiction, for download at an unspecified price, and will be paying them an unspecified royalty rate rather than a per word flat rate, as authors usually get paid as things stand in the short fiction market now. They say it'll be available for a variety of devices, etc.

I find this interesting, though not attractive, even if I were an Orbit author, which I'm not. I'll admit the release is short on details and I haven't seen any other discussion of it. What does all this mean? Any original short fiction? Meaning no editorial input? Direct line from hard drive to publication? I'm uncertain about that. Even great writers can write bad stories. And why shouldn't they offer those stories themselves for download, and keep all of the purchase price, if the editorial side is minimal and they aren't being packaged in an anthology with other authors who might sell more and therefore expose said writers to a new audience. (Like when I'm in an anthology with Neil Gaiman--the advantage to me over offering it on my own site for .99 is that people who read Neil Gaiman hungrily might stumble across my story.) What kind of publicity is on offer here? What kind of publicity is short fiction ever given, really? Not much.

On the surface, it's at least better than the Amazon Shorts program, which fizzled under the dampening weight of unedited junk fiction. I don't think that's a danger here--Orbit has great authors in its stable. But I do think there's a misunderstanding of the state of the short fiction market at the moment.

The idea that one can write short fiction to earn a name and then lever that into a novelist's career is still pretty prevalent. It's an unfortunate idea, not least because it's not really true--you can take that path, sure, but it's one crowded with other hopefuls and there is very little direct causality left to be squeezed out of a career model some 75 years old. It's an unfortunate idea because it means that the majority of short fiction markets are inundated by submissions from people who don't give a crap about short fiction as a form, but only about "making their name." And of published short fiction, I have to say as a reader I find little enough to excite me, because so much short fiction is workmanlike, uninspired, done with ulterior motives in mind.

Is brilliant short fiction being written today? Of course, absolutely. I'm reading Jeff Vandermeer's new collection for blurbing right now and it's excellent. There are even authors like Theodora Goss, Ted Chiang, and Kelly Link who have yet to write novels at all. I'm not claiming it's all bad--that would be silly as I make a substantial income from my short fiction. Am I even saying new, unpublished short fiction writers aren't out there doing good work? No. But I can smell a story written to get a pub credit from quite a distance, and I'm betting you can, too. I'm saying that Sturgeon's Law holds, and I've gotten the feeling it's largely the fault of this pernicious myth that short fiction is some kind of path to novelist fame and fortune.

Somehow, we have yet to be able to monetize short fiction in a reliable way. It seems an obvious thing: we all have short attention spans in this internet-saturated age. 4000 word stories should be enormously popular, moreso than giant doorstopper novels. But it's not so--short story collections are known underperformers even for big names, and of all the thousands of stories published online, only a few acheive any real readership. Anthologies as a market have shrunk, though again there are great ones out there--it's just that getting people on the ground to read them is a struggle.

So, coming back to Orbit, I question whether this is really going to be the path to that monetization. Single short story digital sales have not proved a particularly attractive format--I think the assumption here is that the novelist's fandoms will follow them into short fiction.

But again, if editorial acceptance is assured, as it seems to be, why would those novelists not just make the stories available themselves? If they aren't being paid a flat rate up front, there's no monetary value in taking a fraction of the price instead of the whole hog when publicity for short fiction has always been slim. If novelists are bringing their own fans to the table, why share? The advantages of the short story market as it stands are removed in this system: no packaging with stories by bigger authors, no spotlighting in a previously prestigious publication, no upfront payment. I'm just not seeing the advantage, except to flip the model and use short fiction to promote the novels.

Which, in the end, just reduces short fiction to a tool again. Instead of a tool of the aspiring to reach for their ambitions, a tool of the established to bolster their sales. And that leaves the quality of short fiction available to readers even poorer, and that makes me a sad panda. Because short stories can be amazing--I've learned this through the process of becoming a short fiction writer, which I was not until I had already published my first novel. It was a difficult and frustrating process, and I'm hardly the best example of short story writing out there, not by a long shot, but I care a great deal about the state of the genre world, and this doesn't feel like a step in the right direction.

Not all steps toward the digital are steps toward the good. This is not even a step toward more authorial control--instead of making fairly substantial money up front (depending on how big the name, actually substantial) which is how many novelists keep themselves in electricity between novels, they're taking an unspecified fraction of a likely low price point in exchange for very little or no editorial control (I'm willing to be proven wrong on that score, it's just how I'm reading the release) and digital distribution that those authors could do themselves for very little time or money. This isn't like Tor.com, which pays generously and has a pre-established audience. An author is better off after a story published on Tor than before. I think they'd be about the same after publishing through the Orbit system. There's no value added that I can see. I don't think I'd take that deal, given the many short story opportunities even an author at my level has that pay right now, and package me in advantageous ways. What it feels like to me is a way for publishers to get money even from their authors' side projects, and that feels like a way to keep authors from being excessively diverse in their publications, and I like none of that in the least.

We'll see if details, when they come, reveal some benefit that's not clear right now.

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I've only ever been able to write short fiction. I don't seem to get ideas that have the complexity or multiplicity of factors for a novel. They belong in the 1,000-5,000 word range, every time, so that's what they get. I've occasionally been wistful about what it would be like to have enough material about any one world/plot/concept to carry a novel, but mostly I like my short stories.

They really are completely different forms.

Anyone who thinks that short stories are the way to publication and glory isn't paying attention. Given that stories and novel publications have no connection, and that getting a story into the top tiers of publishing is arguably harder than getting a novel sold (minus the additional effort of writing a novel), and it's pretty clear that for the mercenary author on the go, you hit the novels.

Of course, I'm also of the opinion that most people that mercenary won't generally get far, as you don't write for the money. Most of the people I know write because they didn't know how to do anything else BUT get these stories out of their system, one at a time.

(Yes, yes, not that you shouldn't hold out for great deals and try to monetize your fiction - but dude, if riches are what you seek, it's a fuck of a lot easier to become an MBA.)

Edited at 2010-04-14 09:09 pm (UTC)

All true. Doesn't mean that 90% of short fiction published in genre reads like a particularly dreary apprenticeship.

Huh. I hadn't heard about this -- which is interesting, because Orbit has four novels of mine in print -- and yeah, I pretty much ditto everything you said. "All original short fiction written by our authors" is such an odd phrase, with that "all" in there, and the usual things I could think of that would make this advantageous (pay, bundling with bigger-name authors a la anthologies, etc) seem to be meh or lacking entirely. I, too, will wait for more details, but the release itself leaves me rather perplexed.

Yeah, it seems like a content grab. The all would worry me, too.

It's grammatically odd. Do they mean "every piece of original short fiction written by our authors"? Unless there's some very weird clause being added to Orbit novel contracts, I don't see how that would work. Or maybe "short fiction by our authors, all of which will be original?" But then the phrase is usually hyphenated, all-original. I even wondered if what they meant was they'd offer an electronic edition, of any short story their authors sell elsewhere -- but a) that's kind of more a reprint thing and b) would run afoul of many short story contracts anyway.

The "all-original" explanation makes the most sense to me, though it still wouldn't address the question of how this is advantageous to the author. I'd be willing, under certain circumstances, to write a short story related to a novel of mine and have it be used promotionally rather than selling it to a magazine -- but if that's what this is, they need clarifying language, stat.

The Orbit model looks less appealing that most of the crowdfunding models I have seen. Pity.

(Deleted comment)
Do you have a current contract with them? I don't, so I'm suspecting that's why I haven't heard a peep about this until now; they might only have contacted their currently-contracted authors.

Interesting, I too have always thought that writing short work and building a resume makes for a better presentation to a would be publisher, especially if you are aiming for a small press that does novels and short stories.

While that may or may not be true in my particular genre, I'm finding myself dawdling in short story because I haven't yet written a full novel yet and I pee a little thinking about it still. In the genre I write for, I can sort of progressively dare myself into writing longer and longer short pieces until I hit novel status, all of which are publishable (theoretically).

So they're doing what Torquere, Ellora's Cave, Samhain, Phaze, Amber Quill, Circlet and every other e-publisher does.

The going rates for shorts are about $1.29, up to 6000 words, $2.50 for 10-20K, and so on. Authors make about 35-40% royalties. Sounds like Orbit needs to do some checking on competitive rates.

And I got into novels via shorts, but yes, they are two very different things and I'm coming at it from the e-pub side too.

Before iTunes came along, musicians could sell their own mp3s... but the consumer had to go to each artist's site, navigate a bewildering array of checkout options, type in her credit card number a hundred times, and after all that there was no handy "shoppers who liked X also liked Y" recommendation at the end.

I bought an iPad, and I immediately started shopping for ebooks. Let me tell you, the various stores are awful, hard to navigate, and they all use different, weird checkout systems.

Look at it from the other side. If I wanted to sell my book in the iBook store, I'd have to become an Apple Content Provider. That looks like a pain in the ass and then some. It's precisely the sort of thing I'd rather let my publisher do for me.

So, Orbit gets into the short fiction market, and now its authors can sell short, cheap iBooks, and Kindle books, and whatever other format comes along. The new reader gets to buy something shorter and cheaper than a novel to get a taste of the author's work. The longtime fan gets to buy short fiction that might not be available in a collected work or a periodical that's available in electronic format. All these buyers get the nice, familiar shopping experience of iTunes or Amazon. The author lets the publisher do the heavy lifting of getting the book listed in each store.

Am I missing something here? Because the good sense of Orbit's plan is self-evident to me.

You're missing that the author gets paid less, later, in the long run. And that most Orbit authors already have fanbases that they could market to directly. And that converting a file and making it available is very, very easy. And that we can get paid quite a bit for short fiction elsewhere, upfront.

From the reader's end, it might be a good deal--it might not, as I said, seems like not much on the editorial side. But from the author's end it's a dismal deal, and some of us quite literally eat on our short fiction sales.

Wow. This is really interesting and, as an aspiring writer, contains a ton of great info. I've got to keep some of these things in mind. Thanks.

And I agree that this Orbit deal seems shady. I just...don't think that paying an unspecified fee, rather than per word, would be any better. Short stories are short enough, and difficult enough, that the number of words matter. I'm not a fan, even on the little info that I have, of this plan.

And I will admit, I don't read many short stories. The closest I come is fanfiction - I'm perfectly willing to read short things there because there is already a novel where the characters are created. I love to see characters explored and twisted and changed, and I don't often see that in manageable short fiction. So, I suppose I'm part of the problem in the short fiction market.

Interesting. You've just given me a lot of insight on myself.

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